Hollywood is a fickle city, and the television industry is no exception. Big hits come and go, small screen heroes rise and fall, audience tastes come and go.
But the late Betty White, who died at age 99 on Friday, has gleefully defied the unspoken rules of American television stardom. She has been a mainstay of the medium for seven decades, perpetually relevant and still loved.
How did she do it?
White was first and foremost a supernatural talented television artist: blessed with a winning smile, easy charm, and impeccable comedic timing that made her perfectly suited to the medium.
She was also a quietly versatile comedic actress, able to make subtle changes in her voice and manners without appearing to sweat or lose her lightness to the touch.
She could play slyly sweet (“Life With Elizabeth”), sickly calculated (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), sympathetically curly (“The Golden Girls”) – or sometimes all of the above.
Yet none of this explains why, decades after the ratings peaked for his most famous sitcoms, White has remained a pleasantly ubiquitous celebrity.
The answer could come down to its adaptability.
White, who began his career in its infancy in television media, has shown an instinctive knack for keeping up with the times and finding success in new formats.
During the early decades of television, she roamed through some of the most popular genres of the era: family sitcoms, variety show, game shows. (She was a reliable guest on competitive programs like âTo Tell the Truthâ and âWhat’s My Line?â)
In the 1970s and 1980s, as sitcoms grew more and more sophisticated, she immersed herself in finely sketched characters: the manipulative “maniacal” Sue Ann Nivens in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the adorable eccentric Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.”
In the 2000s, as HBO and other cable destinations softened some of the media’s staid traditions, White once again adapted his character, winning a new generation of fans in surprisingly salty roles.
She played a sassy landlord in TV Land’s âHot in Clevelandâ and a surprisingly sharp grandmother in Sandra Bullock’s comedy âThe Proposalâ.
Still, there was still more in store for White as she approached the last decade of her life. In recent years, White’s likeness has been all over digital media, reaching more admirers through GIFs, YouTube clips, âGolden Girlsâ screenshots and flirty Twitter memes.
White seemed to understand that modern fame meant showing a willingness to good-naturedly subvert his public image, thus emphasizing his wholesomeness.
How many TV actors from the Eisenhower era could talk about trash on the football field in a Super Bowl commercial or in a joking feud with Ryan Reynolds?
The dirty cues she served at William Shatner’s Comedy Central roast in 2006 were smart enough – but there was a deeper joke: the delicious shock of looking like an older woman with dimples and gentle nature that happily jumps into the rough fray.
It’s hard to overstate the vast technological and cultural changes that White has witnessed during his remarkable career. She was there in the days of black and white televisions topped with rabbit-eared antennas. It was there for the cable boom. She was there for Netflix and WiFi.
She was a throwback, but only to a point. Over the course of his prolific career and busy life, White exhibited a certain fearlessness, walking warmly from project to project – and happily unafraid of what was to follow.